Suckler calf management at weaning: How can farmers optimise efficiency?

The Beef Environmental Efficiency Scheme – Suckler (BEEP-S) offers farmers the opportunity to increase economic and environmental efficiency of their suckler herd.

The programme targets the weaning efficiency of suckler cows and calves through collecting the animals’ liveweights; improving the welfare of suckler calves at the time of weaning; and controlling fluke in adult suckler cows.

Weaning stress has an adverse effect on the immune system, making calves more susceptible to disease, particularly pneumonia.

It is often compounded by other husbandry practices occurring at the same time such as change of environment (outdoors to indoors), change of forage diet (from grass to silage), transport/selling, dehorning, castrating, etc.

How can farmers optimise efficiency at weaning?

1) Parasite control – pre-housing dose

All parasites have a negative effect on the calves’ immune system and lungworm in particular can damage the lungs and increase the risk and severity of pneumonia.

Treatment for lungworm ahead of housing allows time for dead worms to be coughed up. The benefit of this pre-housing dose is that all the worms can be removed from the animal, and the lungs can fully recover from the damage that the worms inflicted while they are still out in clean fresh air and under low stress.

Moxidectin (Cydectin®) and doramectin (Dectomax®) offer persistency against re-infection by stomach worms (Ostertagia) and lungworm (Dictyocaulus) of five weeks from a single dose. Therefore, animals treated with either Cydectin or Dectomax five weeks before housing will not need to receive another dose at housing.

2) Control respiratory viruses – vaccination

Viruses such as RSV, Pi3 and IBR can act individually or in combination to cause significant lung and airway damage reducing the animal’s resistance to secondary bacterial infection. These three viruses are the most important primary pathogens.

Once the viruses have caused the primary damage, the bacteria can enter as secondary invaders resulting in extensive damage to the lungs.

So, by protecting against the three key viruses, we can significantly reduce the number and severity of pneumonia outbreaks.

Vaccination offers protection but it takes from five days to up to six weeks to become established after the vaccines are used. Vaccine programmes should therefore be started in time before the period of stress like weaning or housing.

For farmers who have applied for the vaccination element of the BEEP-S scheme, the vaccine course should be completed two to four weeks prior to weaning, housing or a sale.

For a quick onset of immunity, cattle can be vaccinated with an intranasal vaccine. Rispoval® RS+Pi3 IntraNasal protects against RSV and Pi3 within five to 10 days. Protection from a single dose lasts for 12 weeks.

Rispoval® IBR-Marker live gives protection against IBR for up to six months. Given intranasally it is licensed for cattle at immediate risk of IBR (followed by an intramuscular injection three to five weeks later).

Alternatively, a single intramuscular injection given three weeks prior to housing will ensure cattle are protected throughout the housing period.

Vaccination plays an important role in protecting respiratory health; it shouldn’t however be viewed as the silver bullet to solving all health problems. Vaccination must therefore be combined with good farm management practices like those listed below.

3) Nutritional management prior to weaning

If possible, calves should be weaned outdoors in the best possible weather and start introducing concentrates to the calves at last one month prior to weaning. They should be consuming at least 1kg/day at weaning time and be fed concentrates after weaning¹.

4) Weaning procedure

Removing cows away from the group gradually causes less stress than taking away the calves. Up to a third of cows should be removed each time with a minimum interval of five days apart. Removed cows should be moved out of sight and sound from the remaining group¹.

5) Avoiding additional stressors

Procedures such as dehorning and castrating will increase stress around weaning time. These should therefore not be done at weaning.

Ideally, calves should be disbudded at an early age. If this has not been done early on, dehorning should be delayed to four weeks after weaning. Castration is best done in calves under six months-of-age or at least one month prior to weaning.

If the weather allows it, it is good practice to delay the housing and selling of weaned calves for two to three weeks¹.

What can farmers do to reduce the risk of pneumonia in purchased weanlings?

In the current economic climate, beef finishers cannot afford any losses as a result of bovine respiratory disease (BRD).

A moderate case of pneumonia in a beef suckler calf at five to six months-of-age can be associated with 72g of reduced daily liveweight gain per day, or 22kg over a 10-month finishing period².

A severe or chronic case of pneumonia at five to six months-of-age may reduce daily liveweight gain by 202g per day or 61kg over 10 months² and result in a carcass downgrade3, 4.

Based on these facts, the economic returns from safeguarding a case of pneumonia have been estimated at €158 per calf for a moderate case and €314 for a severe case⁴.

Therefore, it is important to have a system in place that minimises stress around purchases in order to reduce the risk of BRD and improve the welfare of calves as they pass through market.

Ideally, calves are vaccinated prior to movement to the market as the stress of transportation and mixing of calves from different sources increases exposure to new pathogens and are a challenge to the immune system.

Where possible, buyers should purchase weanlings which have been weaned prior to the sale.

With a wide variation in calves passing through market, farmers are trading in highly variable products and hundreds of stressed, potentially immunologically naïve calves are being mixed.

Buyers’ future profitability will ultimately depend on the success of these purchases.

This year, farmers will have the opportunity to purchase some ‘Blue tagged calves’. These calves are part of the SureCalf® Programme, a certified pre-conditioning programme aimed at minimising the impact of BRD and improving the welfare of calves going through the marts.

SureCalf® aims to help sellers, who invest in vaccinating against BRD pre-sale, increase the value of their calves at market, and helps buyers by protecting the health of the cattle they are buying.

SureCalf calves can be identified at the mart by the blue ear tag

SureCalf calves must be over three months-of-age and vaccinated two to four weeks prior to sale with a single intranasal dose of Rispoval® RS+ Pi3 IntraNasal (against RSV and Pi3) and a single intramuscular dose of Rispoval IBR-Marker live (against IBR).

The buyer benefits from up to six months’ ongoing cover against IBR and up to 10 weeks’ ongoing cover against RSV and Pi3 ensuring protection and reducing the impact of stress on the calves’ respiratory health.

On arrival, the animals should be placed in a draught-free, well-bedded pen, with plenty of space and access to palatable forage-based feed with long fibre and clean water⁵.

Poor respiratory health can impact both growth rates and feed conversion efficiency, resulting in losses through, for example, increased feed costs, increased finishing times, reduced sale weights, or increased age at first calving in breeding animals.

Now is the time for farmers to engage with their advisor on health plans prior to weaning and housing and avoid the long-term drain on performance.

Further information

‘For more information on SureCalf certification, please speak to your medicine provider or visit:

All Cydectin® products contain moxidectin. All Dectomax® products contain doramectin. Legal Category: LM. Rispoval® IBR-Marker live contains Bovine Herpes Virus type 1 (BHV-1), strain Difivac (gE-negative), modified live (attenuated) virus. Rispoval® 3 contains modified live Bovine Pi3 virus and BRSV, with liquid fraction containing inactivated BVD virus type 1. Rispoval® RS+Pi3 IntraNasal contains modified live Bovine Pi3 virus and BRSV. Legal Category: POM(E).

Use medicines responsibly ( ZT/20/26/1.


  2. Williams P., Green L. (2007) Cattle Practice Vol 15 Part 244-248 (‘moderate BRD’-3 consolidated lung lobes, ‘severe BRD’- 6 consolidated lung lobes);
  3. Cost of carcass downgrade @ €0.10/kg;
  4. Cost of Finishing 550 kg animal @ €3.10/day;